Friday, September 13, 2013

DC Needs to Bring Back Stephanie Brown

I've never been a huge DC Comics fan. I don't even read Batman regularly, I just try to follow the more memorable storylines when they come out in trade--usually via one of my local libraries. But I follow it enough, and back when Stephanie Brown was Robin and then Batgirl, I used to pick up both of those titles on occasion on account of the fact that I have daughters, and my daughters like superheroes.
Stephanie Brown as Batgirl

It's not particularly easy to find superhero comics that aren't either steeped in dark-and-brooding anti-social loners or continually populated with half-naked hyper-sexualized pin-up dolls--or both!--but for awhile there, I felt like DC had managed to put something out in the form of Ms. Brown that was both kick-ass and female-friendly. Unfortunately, that now seems like an aberration in the grand scheme of things, more like an accident of fate than a conscious decision or good storytelling, to the point where the girls and I don't read anything from DC anymore. I mean, I don't consider myself any kind of feminist, but there are still limits to the kinds of things I'll allow my daughters to be exposed to, and more to the point, I don't want them to feel either intimidated or marginalized by the comics they read. Now, that may not seem like such a big deal, but actually, it's been frustrating to find things for them to read that I thinks are actually empowering for them, to the point that now, off the top of my head, I can't think of a single female-friendly superhero title besides Marvel's Captain Marvel

Think about it: Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Black Widow... These are not the titles for girls. Wonder Woman runs around in a bathing suit battling the forces of Hell, and even worse, her actual book is rarely good. DC Comics has made a conscious decision to hyper-sexualize Catwoman because, you know, suttiness can sometimes be re-branded "sex positive" if you're selling it to men. And Black Widow is, well, not a terrible character but certainly forward about the fact that she's a spy who uses sex as an active part of her espionage toolkit. Hell, even a character as seemingly well-intentioned as Spider-Woman tends to get drawn like she's got inflatable balloons stuck up under her costume's chest piece. 

So yeah. Finding super-hero comics for girls is not easy. And to be fair, Stephanie Brown was not a natural feminist icon. 

Brown started life in the 90s as a foil for Tim Drake, the third Robin.  She was the daughter of Cluemaster, an associate of the Riddler's, and she got into costumed crime-fighting to "spoil" her father's crimes. Hence her original name--Spoiler.  But though she worked with Robin, and eventually Batman, Spoiler always got played as the girl who wasn't quite good enough, the one most likely to cause the whole operation to go up in flames. She got pregnant by the wrong guy, accidentally started a gang war, and was eventually tortured and killed. Batman, meanwhile, constantly derided her efforts, used her egregiously for his own often nefarious purposes, and then seemed not particulalry bothered when she actually died. Bottom line, she was an ill-used plot-device, and DC Editorial didn't even pay off the emotional pathos of all of her eventual, inevitable sacrifices. Sadly, that's kind'a the norm for a female supporting character in a Bat-title. 

This is the character DC Comics couldn't figure
out how to monetize.
But the one thing about Stephanie that worked was that she never quit, and she never took no for an answer. I can imagine that that's how the first female graduates of West Point must've felt--marginalized by an Army waiting to discard them at the first, most convenient opportunity once their political expediency was used up. 

But the thing is, the only way to deal with something like that is to keep fighting. And that is exactly what Ms. Brown did, through several different writers and across half a dozen different titles. She was Spoiler and then Robin and then Spoiler again (and so on) until eventually, she just said, "to Helll with it" and made herself Batgirl. At the end of it all, when Bruce Wayne was coming back from the dead in Bruce Wayne: The Road Home, they even made a point of how different her story arc from everyone else's in the Bat-Family. She's the only one who missed Bruce for who he was outside of the Batcave, and likewise, she was the only one who dreaded his return because she didn't want to be forced out of the life she'd built for herself while he was gone. 

See?  Her so-called mentor had actually been holding her back, and in his absence, she'd flourished. 

Batman & Robin
She admits as much in The Road Home and challenges him, finally realizing that she doesn't need Batman at all, that she IS Batgirl whether he likes it or not. And that is a positive message for girls. 

But shortly thereafter, DC rebooted its whole universe, jettisoning Stephanie's story and all that we with it. Since he launch of The New 52, Stephanie Brown has been entirely absent from DC Comics; in the end I guess Batman had the last laugh after all. 

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